May remind you of school, but without the tests

Anton Chekhov's The Duel

on April 28, 2010 by John P. McCarthy

Anton Chekhov’s The Duel took me back to my undergraduate days (nearly three decades ago), a number of which were spent in an A/V carrel in the college library watching videotaped productions of canonical stage plays. Dover Koshashvili’s ambling, eminently accessible film captures the spirit of Chekhov’s novella without being overly taxing. If NYU’s Russian Lit department makes it required viewing, the movie’s two-week long run at Film Forum will do relatively well.

Admirers of Koshashvili’s celebrated first feature Late Marriage (2001) might constitute the next largest segment of the audience. Both films are wry comedies of manners, the first set in contemporary Israel amongst Jews of Georgian extraction and this, slightly less mordant piece, is set in the Russian Caucuses during the late nineteenth century.

In a provincial town far from the capitol and any intrigue of consequence, dissolute nobleman Laevsky (Andrew Scott) has grown tired of his married mistress Nadya (Fiona Glascott). One summer’s day, he learns via letter that her husband has died. Fearing she’ll insist on getting married, he doesn’t share the news with Nadya; instead he tries to figure out how he might be free of her. Meanwhile, she has been flirting (and more) with seemingly half the men in town. He thinks Nadya is clingy. Little does he know she’s been sticking close to the policeman, the hat maker and the hat maker’s son, to name three overheated gents in their small circle.

Laevsky’s primary nemesis, not counting his own indolence and propensity for carping, is the zoologist Von Koren (Tobias Menzies). Von Koren disapproves of Laevsky, though it doesn’t take much psychological acuity to see his moral disgust is stoked by jealousy and his own sublimated lust for Nadya. This upright man of science spends his days conducting research and debating moral law with a sycophantic priest; he’s also frequently in the company of Laevsky’s friend, the country doctor Samoylenko (Niall Buggy) who defends Laevsky despite being misused in various ways.

Laevsky and Nadya’s mutual dissatisfaction and ennui notwithstanding, they have a deep affection for one another. Their sex life is certainly not boring, and while they have no money and their home is unkempt, they belong together. Koshashvili mirrors their relaxed attitude toward housekeeping in his outwardly carefree approach to the material, whose themes are projected clearly but in refreshingly light relief. They are distinct yet elusive enough to be engaging.

The film’s accessibility is enhanced by Mary Bing’s English-language script and by the fine, mostly U.K.-based cast. Andrew Scott’s hilarious facial expressions are more telling than any dialogue he utters, conveying Laevsky’s frustration and dilettantism with only a hint of clownishness. Another positive is the lovely Croatian countryside that stands-in for the Black Sea region.

Anton Chekhov’s The Duel has the agreeable air of a top-notch summer stock production. The heat the characters complain of is more psychological than climatic, most palpable in contrast to the cool, cave-like site alongside a river where the titular confrontation takes place. You get the impression that learned explication—interpreting the story through historical or allegorical prisms, for instance—would spoil the experience and undercut Koshashvili’s intent. The last thing he and Chekhov would want is for the viewer/reader to worry about sitting for an exam or producing a scholarly paper on “The Duel.”

Listen closely, however, and amidst the zingers and world-weary chatter, Chekhov’s generous humanism comes through loud and clear. Behold two flawed, slightly miserable souls who need and deserve one another. There are worse things a man can become than a cynical lay-about; and a little promiscuity needn’t define a woman’s character nor ruin her reputation.

Distributor: Film Forum
Cast: Andrew Scott, Tobias Menzies, Fiona Glascott, Niall Buggy, Jeremy Swift, Nicholas Rowe, Debbie Chazen, and Rik Makarem
Director: Dover Koshashvili
Screenwriter: Mary Bing
Producers: Donald Rosenfeld and Mary Bing
Genre: Drama/Comedy
Rating: Unrated
Running time: 95 min.
Release date: April 28 NY

Tags: Anton Chekhov, Andrew Scott, Tobias Menzies, Niall Buggy, Jeremy Swift, Fiona Glascott, Nicholas Rowe, adaptation

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